When Alan McCarthy was sworn in as Cecil County Executive in December, I had more questions than answers on his plans for the county. Would he stay the course of the previous administration by keeping the county’s head barely above water, so focused on merely surviving that planning for the future almost seemed like an afterthought, or would he be a force for change?
In March, he announced his first budget and demonstrated that he was setting a course that would start moving the county forward.
Yes, the proposed budget includes tax increases but, for the first time in years, the budget is balanced and doesn’t rely on fund balance to do so. For nearly 20 years, the County had been depleting its savings to cover budgetary shortfalls. That ends with this budget–well, it could end with this budget, IF the Cecil County Council votes to accept Dr. McCarthy’s budget as proposed next week.
Proposed Cecil County Income Tax Rate
The proposed budget includes a .20 increase in the income tax rate to 3.00, which if approved, would be the first increase since 2001. The new rate remains inline with those of our in-state neighbors, Harford County and Kent County.
Few things are less expensive in 2017 than they were in 2001–actually, nothing is less expensive.
Proposed Cecil County Property Tax Rate
The proposed budget includes a .0500 increase in the property tax rate to 1.0414. Cecil County actually reduced its property tax rate during the recession and has remained level for the past five years and, even with this increase, remains inline with the rates in Harford and Kent Counties.
Changes in State Funding have Hurt Cecil County
Even if no other expenses in the county increased in recent years (a thought so preposterous that it’s laughable), funding decisions at the state level have hurt Cecil County.
Highway User Revenues Cut
Each year, the state collects millions of dollars in tolls and gas taxes and, in the past, 30% of those funds were returned to the counties for the maintenance and repair of locally-owned roads and bridges. But in FY 2010, the state decided to reduce the portion returned to the counties to just 10%. At the county executive’s town hall on the budget in February, we were told Cecil County’s share of the highway user revenue plummeted from $6,229,808 in FY 2008 to just $644,934 for FY 2018 (projected).
So where do all those tolls the state of Maryland collects for the two bridges on the main roads into Cecil County end up? In the state’s accounts or on projects in other counties. How much money are we talking about? In FY 2016, $11.6 million in tolls were collected on the Thomas J. Hatem bridge that carries Rt. 40 over the Susquehanna River and $168.9 million in tolls were collected on the Millard E. Tydings bridge that carries I-95. Let those numbers sink in.
Regardless of the total collected, a pittance ends up coming back to Cecil County.
Teacher Pensions “Shifted”
Not only did the state opt to slash the counties’ cut of the highway funds but they also chose to push the financial responsibility for teacher pensions, an expense that had historically be funded by the state down, to the counties. That expense of nearly $4 million per year was phased-in over the 2013-2016 fiscal years–while Cecil County, like most in the state, was still reeling from the recession. You can read more about the 2012 change here.
In summary, we’ve seen highway funds dry up and teacher pensions “shifted.” All the while, Cecil County did little to offset those crippling financial blows.
Ok, enough doom and gloom. Let’s talk about a bright spot of this budget cycle.
Agencies Advocating for the Greater Good
The spirit of this year’s budget conversations is different from those in the last few years. In the past, county agencies and supporters were pitted against each other in a battle for any available additional funds. But this year we’ve heard representatives from those agencies advocate for their own budget as a component of the overall proposed budget.
Speakers at last week’s budget hearing represented Cecil College, Cecil County Public Library, Cecil County Public Schools, Cecil County Emergency Services and emergency-related associations, and Cecil County Parks and Recreation and I’m sure a few groups I’ve forgotten who were all advocating for the budget as proposed. In a time when many are divided, it is refreshing to see these groups band together for the greater good.
That’s not to say there weren’t those speakers fighting against the budget and the necessary tax increases. From my tally, it was pretty evenly split with 20 speakers supporting the budget and 17 speaking against it.
That makes it even more important that the county council hear from us before they continue deliberations on Thursday and vote next Tuesday.
Contact the County Council Today
For too long, Cecil County has been trying to make do with less and we’ve just continued to dig ourselves a deeper hole. At some point, we will have to invest in our community. If we don’t start this year, when will we?
There is never a “good” time. We need to start now.
Be part of the solution. Email the county council to tell them you support the proposed budget. Copy and paste these email addresses firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Budget season is in full-swing and some of us will be speaking to the Cecil County Council to advocate for specific organizations or projects. For those who have never attended a council meeting, I thought I’d give you an idea of what to expect.
It’s important to talk with the council now
On March 31, County Executive Alan McCarthy presented his first proposed budget to the county council. Now the budget is in the hands of the council and the various departments covered by the county budget will appear before the council to plead the case for their specific funding. Between now and the vote to approve the budget in early June, the council will deliberate and accept public comment.
That’s where we come in.
The council can’t add to the proposed budget but they can cut from it. And since this budget includes modest tax increases, the council will most likely spend the coming weeks frantically trying to pare the budget down to something that doesn’t require a tax increase.
Worthwhile and necessary projects in just about any county agency could be cut if there isn’t enough public support.
Keep in mind–there is a small but vocal group of citizens who attend most council meetings in order to badger the council about county spending and budgets. We need to be just as vocal in our support of the funding for those things that will lead to a brighter future for our county, like education and infrastructure.
Opportunities to speak to the council
The county council holds legislative meetings on the first and third Tuesdays of each month at 7 PM. On the first Tuesday of the month, the legislative meeting is preceded by the Citizens’ Corner at 6 PM. Check the Cecil County government website for dates, times, and agendas of upcoming meetings as well as minutes and audio recordings of past meetings.
Attend and speak at a county council meeting
April 18, 7 PM
Citizens’ Corner at 6 PM
Council Meeting at 7 PM
May 16, 7 PM
Attend and speak at the public budget hearing on May 23rd at Elkton High School at 7 PM
Sign up before the meeting
If you would like to speak during the public comment portion of a legislative meeting or during the Citizens’ Corner you are asked to sign up before the sessions begin, however, time permitting, after everyone who signed up has had an opportunity to speak, the council will usually ask if anyone else in attendance would like to make additional comments before ending a session.
What to expect
Speakers are usually timed during both legislative meetings and Citizens’ Corner. I can’t remember if the limit is 3 minutes or 5 minutes, regardless, there’s a large clock in the room and you’ll be able to watch the countdown.
Communication with the council is very different between the two types of sessions. During Citizens’ Corner, council members can respond to your comments and you can have a conversation. During the public comment session of the legislative session, council members can not respond to you. In fact, if you are a little nervous about speaking, you might find it easier to do so during the legislative session when you won’t be asked any follow-up questions.
What to say
When your name is called, you’ll walk to the podium in the front of the room where you’ll be asked to state your name and the name of your town. After that, it’s time for you to share your story.
You don’t have to be an expert on the topic you are there to talk about. We are experts in OUR experiences. For those of us advocating for public education, we may be living the education experience every day. Whether you’re a teacher living it with students in the classroom or a parent or caregiver living it with your student at home, every experience is unique and worth being heard.
Perryville, it’s your turn
In the case of the Perryville community, we will be out supporting the installation of a turf field at Perryville High School, a project County Executive Alan McCarthy included in his proposed FY 2018 budget. If the funding makes it through the budget process, Perryville would be the first high school in Cecil County to have a turf field. As you can imagine, this is a big deal for our community.
While the project is included in the budget, the council has the ability to cut it before their vote in June and, with its $1 million price tag, the field is an easy target during budget deliberations. I was shocked to see the field included in this budget and if it gets cut now we have no way of knowing when or if it will be proposed again.
We need to convey to the council the many positive impacts such a facility would make on our school and the town. We need to bring numbers to meetings–even if only one person speaks, we should try to have several people attend the meeting with them.
Other ways to advocate
If your schedule doesn’t permit you to attend a council meeting or if public speaking isn’t for you, emails and phone calls to the County Council are just as effective.
Email our county council members at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
I’ve opened this blog post dozens of times in the last month with the intention of finishing it and hitting publish. But each time, I struggled to figure out what story I wanted to tell. Did I want to talk about the history of the facilities at Perryville High School? Or recap the happenings from Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy’s town hall on the FY 2018 in February? Or explain that I had little hope that Perryville would see their request for a field house finally answered in this budget?
I sat in the meeting room that dreary Friday morning skimming the budget in brief, expecting to find nothing in there for Perryville. Instead, I saw this:
A turf field? For Perryville? It isn’t a field house but it comes at about half the price tag of a field house and our current field is in terrible shape. (Honestly, the fields at the other high schools in the county aren’t much better.)
But it’s not a done deal…the proposed budget is now in the hands of the Cecil County Council for approval. The council can’t add to the proposed budget but they can, and will, cut items from the budget.
And a $1 million project is an easy target for a council desperate to avoid tax increases. (Yes, the county executive’s budget includes modest increases in the property and income tax rates. Read more here)
There is no telling what type of shenanigans we’ll witness during these budget deliberations.
We could watch that turf field slip right through our hands…if we don’t tell the county council how important this project is to our community.
It would be easier for the council to cut the field than to face the ire of the small but outspoken group who is constantly crying for lower taxes. As you can imagine, this group is already in a frenzy over the prospect of a tax increase and it’s only been a week since the budget was released.
We will need to advocate for this project to ensure it becomes a reality for our community.
Here’s what you can do to advocate:
Call or email our county council members at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Two seats on the board of education for Cecil County Public Schools are up for vote on Tuesday and, in this election year with a highly contentious presidential race, it’s easy to see how the a voter might think the race for board of education is inconsequential.
Any person running for the position must be interested in advocating for public education, right? Not so fast.
What part of “non-partisan” don’t they understand?
Despite the defeat of his running mate in the primary, Mr. Emmerich, who is in a race against current board member and former Cecil County commissioner Bill Manlove, doesn’t appear to have changed his stance.
In a post on his Facebook page stating his “areas of focus” from September 29, 2016 , Mr. Emmerich writes, “I also attended the CCPS budget presentations this year and that is when I decided the Board of Ed. needed a conservative voice and felt I should run for Board of Ed. in the 1st District.” He makes no mention of any specific issues he had with the budget presentations or suggestions for how he would address those issues. He just dropped the buzzword that he believes to be his ticket to a seat on the board.
There will be homework
Holding a seat on the Cecil County Board of Education means more than attending a meeting for two or three hours every few weeks and posing for the occasional photo opportunity. Board members also spend countless hours outside the walls of the Carver Center visiting schools, reviewing documents like budgets, policies, and annual reports that will be discussed at future meetings, and meeting with county officials and education advocates.
In short, board of education members spend a lot of time doing their own homework. Mr. Emmerich might have considered doing his own homework before he wrote that post in September. Let’s talk about a few of his points:
“More budgeted funds going to the classroom or deferred maintenance.” Another vague statement with no citations for the budget line items that he feels show funds being spent somewhere other than in the classroom or on maintenance. All the CCPS budget documents and annual reports for the last five years are posted on the CCPS website so there’s no reason not to provide facts to support his position–that is, if there are facts that support his position.
“COMAR calls for substance abuse awareness in health class. With the amount of drug abuse in this County, I wonder if what we’re doing is enough?” If Mr. Emmerich read the documents supporting the CCPS budget request, all of which are available online, he would have seen that the school system has made adding drug education teachers and student services resource teachers a priority in the last two years. With a little more research he would seen that a presentation about the CCPS “LifeSkills” training program was made at the July 11, 2016 board of education meeting.
“CCPS should encourage individual achievement over Government dependence.”And this point? I have no words.
“Work with the Administration to fund the schools needs in ways that don’t cause unnecessary increases in Maintenance of Effort for the County.” I can’t wait to hear his suggestions for this point.
“CCPS should post performance data in a comparative format. Data included would be test scores for last 3 years, total number of students and cost per student. This would allow the citizens of the county to judge the schools effectiveness.” It looks like Mr. Emmerich needs an introduction to Maryland Report Card, the Maryland State Department of Education’s public website that houses enrollment, demographic, and assessment data for every county and school in the state. The site includes all the data he’s requesting except for the cost per student and that was included in the board of education’s presentation to the county council which is available online and included below. Cecil County ranks 19 out of 24 districts for education funding per student and, at $5,281, the county’s portion of that funding is considerably lower than the state average of $6,914–$1,633 lower to be exact.
More CCPS contracts should be available to local contractors–Again, Mr. Emmerich doesn’t provide any facts to support this point. What geographic area does he consider local? Cecil County borders on two other states and many of our county’s residents work for out of state employers. Does he consider that local? Further, CCPS is required to follow strict policies for procurement (here are just two of them Procurement Policy and Procurement Procedures) and the bid recommendations are presented, discussed, and voted on at board of education meetings and supporting documents are available in Board Docs. Additionally, it was noted at a recent board meeting that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find qualified contractors who are interested in bidding on some projects because an improving economy and construction booms in neighboring school districts have created new options for contractors.
Vote on Tuesday
Before voting on Tuesday, please do your own homework. Learn more about the candidates for board of education and make sure you vote for the two candidates who are running for the right reasons–the nearly 16,000 students in our public schools.
Reduction at county level could reduce state funding as well
At least most of us agree–the North East branch of the Cecil County Public Library needs a new building. Yay, for agreement!
We also seem to be in agreement about the chosen location for the new library–the North East Station shopping center that is anchored by Food Lion and Lowes. Another cheer for agreement!
One thing we can’t seem to agree on is the amount of funding the county should provide for the construction of the new library. Boo for disagreement but without it I’d only be able to write about sunshine and rainbows–and that gets boring after a while.
Right now there is a wide divide between the projected cost from library system and the amount of funding some members of the Cecil County Council have proposed for the project.
Why does North East need a new library?
The North East library was built in 1991 and is just 2,800 sq. ft., far smaller than acceptable for a library serving a community the size of North East. You can read more here
Limitations of current branch
Only 12 parking spaces
Only a handful of computers which means visitors sometimes must wait 30 minutes or more for their turn
Only two study tables, one for adults and one for children
Limitations severely impact the library’s youngest patrons
According to a representative of the library, for every 3 children who participate in the Summer Reading and Learning Program in Elkton, only 1 child participates in North East. Every year, hundreds of children are closed out of library educational programs and classes in North East due to lack of space. Area schools are forced to transport students to other libraries to work on research projects because they simply cannot fit a class in the building and because resources are limited.
Population growth of 50% projected by 2040
We want to build a library of a size that adequately serves not just the current population of the area but one that can sufficiently meet the needs of a growing community. Cecil County made the mistake of constructing an undersized building for the current building and the library was too small from the day it opened.
We can’t afford to make that mistake again. We must do it right the first time–or would this be the second time?
The Wilmington Area Planning Council projects the population of the greater North East area to grow 50% by 2040 (from 23,259 in 2010 to 34,862 in 2040). Here’s a link to their data According to the state of Maryland’s standards for library construction, a library branch to serve a community of this size should be 30,000 sq. ft.
New North East branch would become new system headquarters
CCPL is currently headquartered in the same building as the Elkton branch, a building of 25,000 sq. ft. Elkton’s population is a little bigger than North East’s right now and is also expected to increase by about 50% by 2040 so it won’t be long before the branch needs to use every bit of those 25,000 sq. ft. in order meet the community’s needs.
Moving the headquarters to the new North East branch extends the useful life of the Elkton branch by making more space available for public services and alleviating the overflowing parking lot. (CCPL is also working with Cecil County Public Schools to increase available parking at the Elkton branch as part of the Gilpin Manor Elementary School replacement project.)
During last Thursday’s county council deliberations over the FY 2017 budget, Councilman Dan Schneckenberger proposed that the council limit Cecil County’s contribution to the project to $12.8 million. You can listen to the debate in the audio from the meeting (1:39:00 mark in this recording). Here’s an article from the Cecil Whig about the meeting.
Funding Cuts Jeopardize State Aid
I’m new to the library budget but it’s my understanding that, like public schools, large capital projects for public libraries must also be reviewed and approved at the state level in order to be considered eligible for state grant funding. State aid for these projects represents millions of dollars of funding and is contingent on presenting a well-justified project that uses universal planning standards and population projections to size the building, as well as accurate cost projections that are reviewed annually by a licensed architect.
The state of Maryland has already reviewed the initial documents and cost projections for the North East branch as proposed by CCPL and County Executive Tari Moore in the CIP. At this point, alterations to the project, which would potentially bring it out of compliance with state standards, risk that support for the project.
Email the county now and voice your support for the project as proposed
The county council is scheduled to vote on the FY 2017 budget for Cecil County on Tuesday night. If we want to see the North East branch proceed as proposed, we need to make our voices heard by the county administration.
Here are ways you can contact the council:
Copy and paste these email addresses: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Attend and speak at the Citizens’ Corner session with the County Council at 6 PM Tuesday evening
Calvert Regional Park is a Cecil County Parks and Recreation facility being built in phases on Brick Meeting House Rd. near the intersection with RT 273.
There is little disagreement that the park is beautiful and should be a source of pride. It’s home to Cecil County’s first artificial turf playing field as well as 9 additional fields and a walking trail.
Cecil County Parks and Recreation has the lowest per capita funding in the state of Maryland
I have always been supportive of Cecil County Parks and Rec, in fact, I emailed Cecil County Executive Tari Moore and the county council on May 7, 2013 to support the department’s annual budget request:
…CCPR offers a wide range of activities at price levels that are accessible to many residents. I’m impressed with the work Cecil County has done to provide facilities especially in these down economic times…
Three years later, CCPR continues to offer programs at fees that are significantly lower than similar nearby programs and is another example of a Cecil County department doing more with less.
How much less?
Cecil County spends only $9 per person per year on parks and recreation programs–the lowest per capita spending in the state of Maryland! The statewide average is $99.
To summarize what I’ve said so far: Yay, Cecil County Parks and Rec! You’re doing the best you can with the meager funding you’ve received.
Now, let’s talk about the points that we may disagree on.
Comments from the Cecil County Budget Hearing
Last week the citizens of Cecil County had an opportunity to share our thoughts with the Cecil County Council about the proposed budget for FY 2017. It was the smallest crowd I’ve seen for a budget hearing in the last few years but it was also held considerably later than in years past and was scheduled for the Thursday before Memorial Day so I’m sure families were busy making plans for the long weekend or attending the many little league games that have had to be postponed during this soggy spring.
Some of the usual groups attended and advocated for funding for Cecil College, the Cecil County Public Library, and Cecil County Public Schools. We gave our usual remarks and even joked on our way out about the frustration of having to say essentially the same thing every year with little change in behavior from the county.
At the end of my allotted time, I talked about Calvert Park, I asserted that no more money should be invested in the park until the more pressing needs of the county have been met.
The powers that be in Cecil County have watched the school system’s deferred maintenance list balloon to $44 million over the last decade. Now the county appears to be willing to put the department of public works on a similarly destructive path by slashing its budget by $2.4 million, including the elimination of $1 million of paving. Here’s a post about that.
As long as Cecil County can’t adequately fund necessities like schools, roads, and law enforcement, it has no business investing more money in Calvert Park.
As long as the existing playing fields at our schools are either bare or nothing but weeds, no more money should be invested in constructing additional playing fields at a facility that many kids in our county will never have the opportunity to play on.
Facts about the Calvert Regional Park project
Here are the facts I’ve dug up about the Calvert Park project.
While there are few details of the project in the CIP, here’s how it was described in a November 19, 2015 article from the Cecil Guardian:
“…enhancing the already popular trail in the park, adding two more playing to the current ten fields at the park, a dog park, and additional parking.”
Did you get that? Paving at one facility in the entire county but cutting the budget for paving county roads…and a dog park. I love dogs; our giant beast of a mutt nearly smothers me every night but Cecil County is a long way from being able to afford a dog park.
A few additional facts about Calvert Park
One of the main justifications for developing Calvert Park the possibility of drawing large sports tournaments to the area. Phrases like “sports tourism” and the promise of “economic revitalization” have been tossed around as supporters grasped to justify the project.
Here’s one problem:
A privately funded sports complex is being built 15 miles away in Middletown, DE–an area that already has the tourism infrastructure required to host a large tournament like hotels and restaurants. Here’s an article with more information
A full-sized indoor turf field with seating for 1,000
That’s way out of our league. In sporting terms, that facility will be the equivalent of the show and we’ll be playing single A ball.
Project Benefits One Area of the County
Since my sons are older teens, I thought neither of them would eever have the opportunity to play on the only turf field in the county because it’s padlocked shut. Fortunately or unfortunately, Perryville High School hosted the UCBAC track and field meet on our new track on the same day our boys’ lacrosse team was required to play a playoff game. An arrangement was worked out that allowed Perryville High School and Bohemia Manor High School to play on the turf at Calvert Park.
Calvert Park is a beautiful facility and those who can travel there will continue to enjoy it but it won’t be the huge economic driver some in the county are hoping for.
North East and Rising Sun will see some economic activity from the facility but towns farther away like Perryville and Elkton will see little economic benefit.
Where’s the casino money? I think part of it is going to Calvert Park
Ah, the casino money (video lottery terminals, in political speak). Aside from the portion the County awards through the annual grant program and the amount the town of Perryville receives, I haven’t spent much time thinking about where Cecil County spends the rest of the money.
Until I started looking at the county’s CIP…
A chunk of the casino money is going to the Calvert Park project:
By the time the project is completed, $853,000 of the VLT funds funds will have been spent there. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with using part of the revenue from the casino on such a project, however, it appears to be the only capital project that is planned to receive funding from that source in FY 2017, at least as far as I can tell from the CIP.
The Cecil County Council Deliberates on the FY 2017 Budget today and votes on Tuesday
The Cecil County budget will be finalized in the next few days. I encourage you to contact our county representatives with your opinions on the budget.
Here are email addresses to copy and paste: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
While I’m a vocal advocate for public education, I also expect the county to adequately fund the other operations that are necessary for modern society. Emergency services, public works, law enforcement are just some of the departments and activities that are critical to the future of our county.
Thumbing through my dog-eared copy of the FY 2017 Proposed Budget in Brief, I was shocked to see the budget for the Cecil County Department of Public Works reduced by $2.4 million next year. Click here to read it for yourself
“The Department of Public Works is proposed to be funded for FY 17 at$ 9,698,038, a decrease of $2,376,304, or 19.7% versus FY 16, largely due to decreased funding support for road overlay.”
The budget specifically notes a $1.8 million reduction in the Roads Maintenance budget, a 46.1% decrease compared to the FY 2016 Revised Budget. (page 17)
Has road maintenance gotten cheaper?
Are our roads in such great shape that few need paving and repair this year?
The $2.1 million proposed for Roads Maintenance is significantly lower than the actual costs in FY 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and the 2016 Year to Date Actual Costs of $2,830,351 (per the FY 2017 Expenditures Budget Report posted on the county website. There isn’t a date on the document so I’m not sure how much of the year’s expenses are actually represented).
And represents a 100% reduction in “Asphalt Overlay.” One million dollars for road paving–the entire budget for that line item–cut.
I’m a little surprised that there hasn’t been a peep from the council, the media, or the public questioning the proposal to cut road paving in 2017.
We’ve seen how such draconian and short sighted spending cuts have damaged our school infrastructure. Cecil County Public Schools and, therefore, the citizens of Cecil County are now facing a list of deferred maintenance projects totaling $44 million because of the county goverment’s decision to not adequately fund capital improvements at our schools.
Can we afford to have the same thing happen to our transportation infrastructure?
It’s not too late. The council will be deliberating on the budget in the coming week and will vote on June 7.
Email the county council and administration and share your thoughts with them.
Here are email addresses to copy and paste: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
If you had $1.8 million, what would you do?
It’s been nearly 8 weeks since Cecil County Executive Tari Moore introduced her proposed budget for FY 2017 and I’ve hardly posted a word about it. I’m sure some were hoping that I’d overlooked the fact that the Cecil County Council will be finalizing the budget in these next two weeks in advance of their vote on the final budget on June 7. I may have been distracted by an ugly county primary election and the high school lacrosse season but the bigger reason for not posting anything about the budget was that I have such mixed emotions about it.
Yes, there are positive parts of the budget for Cecil County Public Schools but there are parts of the budget that are disappointing for our school system, its employees, and the families and communities it serves.
Since the proposed budget was introduced at a press conference on April 1, I was holding out hope that it was an elaborate April Fool’s prank.
Unfortunately, after waiting 8 weeks for the “gotcha!” I’ve now got to face the facts.
The Good–Continuing the renewed commitment to large capital projects
Prior to the introduction of the FY 2016 budget last spring, it took herculean effort to secure funding from Cecil County for CCPS-related projects, most notably the new Cecil County School of Technology and the renovation of Perryville Elementary School. And without the county funding its share of additional large capital projects, the state of Maryland wouldn’t provide funding for its share of the projects. This meant that Cecil County missed out on potentially millions of dollars of capital projects during those years–basically “leaving money on the table” that the state would end up sending to other school systems.
During down economic times in Cecil County, those additional funds had the potential to change the lives of local tradespeople employed on infrastructure projects.
Cecil County Executive Tari Moore surprised many with her FY 2016 budget. For those of us advocating for public education, it was a pleasant surprise that included the funds for planning the replacement of Gilpin Manor Elementary School and a commitment to fund the planning of new school every two years.
Once planning funds were secured, CCPS set out designing not just the new Gilpin Manor school, but also developing those plans as a prototype for the Chesapeake City Elementary School replacement. Another example of CCPS leadership having the foresight and resourcefulness to make the most cost effective use of county funding.
The proposed FY 2017 continues the commitment to large capital projects for our schools. In addition to the final year’s funding for the extensive renovation of Perryville Elementary School, the proposed FY 2017 budget includes three significant new projects for CCPS:
Gilpin Manor Elementary School
With the plans for GMES nearly completed and approved at all levels, funding needed to be secured to begin construction. The county executive’s proposed budget includes $4.1 million in funding for the first year of construction. Additionally, CCPS was notified earlier this month that the state of Maryland approved nearly $4 million for towards its share of the project. This would be the first completely new school in the county since Rising Sun High School and Elk Neck Elementary School in 1991. Here’s the story from the Cecil Whig
The proposed budget includes the county’s share of funding for boiler replacement projects at Bohemia Manor Middle/High School, Kenmore Elementary School, Cherry Hill Middle School, and Thomson Estates Elementary School. These projects were also recently approved to receive the state’s share of the necessary funding.
Chesapeake City Elementary School
The current Chesapeake City Elementary School was built in 1939 and lacks many features of a modern educational facility. The FY 2017 budget includes $900,000 to purchase the land necessary for the project.
The Bad–Minimal, er, maintenance of effort for the operating budget
My husband doesn’t follow the school budget process closely so our conversation that night after Tari Moore’s press conference to introduce her proposed budget went like this.
“What’s it called again–minimal effort?”
“Close enough and probably more accurate. It’s maintenance of effort.”
“Why did they even pretend to prepare a budget for the school system if they were just going to plug numbers into a formula and call it done?”
“My thoughts exactly. Do the quick math and ‘Voila, budget!'”
Contrary to what you might have read from various sources, including candidates for board of education, maintenance of effort is not a formula for adequate school funding. Instead, it’s a state law that provides a formula for the minimum funding a county can provide to its schools and was enacted to prevent a county from drastically and routinely underfunding public education.
“…the county governing body shall appropriate local funds to the school operating budget in an amount no less than the product of the county’s full–time equivalent enrollment for the current fiscal year and the local appropriation on a per pupil basis for the prior fiscal year.” Md. EDUCATION Code Ann. § 5-202
There are quite a few expenses that are not covered in the maintenance of effort formula yet are still the county’s responsibility. For example, the formula doesn’t provide any funding for pre-kindergarten students or take into account the added expenses associated with special education services even though these programs are required by law.
While there are a few situations where a county can request a waiver to fund its schools below the maintenance of effort, such requests must be approved by the state and are not taken lightly.
The FY 2016 budget felt like a light at the end of the long, dark tunnel for our school system. It included money to create a handful of sorely needed new positions, mainly in the area of special education. These new positions replace just a fraction of the jobs that had been cut in the last decade due to lack of funding. It also provided for cost of living and step increases for employees, expenses that are necessary to keep pay scales competitive with those in neighboring systems, both instate and out of state. As Superintendent Dr. D’ette Devine pointed out, “Pennsylvania loves to get teachers that we’ve trained,” but who leave our county for higher pay.
The CCPS FY 2017 budget request included 29 new positions:
Special education teachers and paraprofessionals
Music & art teachers
Drug education & student services teachers (to assist students who are dealing with the social issues in our communities)
Instructional coaches (The state requires that all new teachers be mentored for their first several years. I believe there are currently only two mentors serving the entire county.)
Unfortunately, a maintenance of effort budget allows for few, if any, of those positions to be added.
Finally, let’s rip the Band-aid off and talk about the County Executive’s proposed small capital budget.
Small capital projects are those that are too expensive to cover from the operating budget yet do not meet the criteria of large capital projects. These projects are not eligible for state funding and are solely the county’s responsibility. Few projects have been funded in recent years and I was hopeful that we would see an end to that trend.
Sadly, that wasn’t the case.
The county’s failure to provide adequate funding for improvements at our schools is well documented:
Cecil County has watched the CCPS deferred maintenance list balloon to $44 million over the last decade yet it has no plan for completing the projects on the list. At some point, the county needs to stop waiting for the Deferred Maintenance Fairy to arrive on the wave of some kind of miraculous economic boom. Hope is not a plan.
During the county executive’s press conference to announce her proposed budget for FY 2017, I asked about the small capital budget:
You can listen to it in this recording starting at the 18:00 minute mark. Here’s a transcript:
ME: (inaudible)…small cap budget…
CRAIG WHITEFORD (former Cecil County budget manager) : …For the public school system. Within the confines of our entire budgetary document, not just the budget in brief, although I think we did make mention of the small cap, I can just tell you. In the small cap for the public school system, it was Rising Sun High tennis courts and the associated basketball court.
WINSTON ROBINSON (finance director)/TARI MOORE: Along with the BTOP and Johnson Controls contract.
ME: And the other things like the cooling tower at Perryville?
WHITEFORD: They’re not proposed to be funded in the proposed budget [MOORE: That’s correct.] at this time.
ME: And if there’s a failure is the county prepared for such an event?
WHITEFORD: Well just like we do any time when something is proposed in the confines of a budget, we make ourselves available. It’s not as if the conversations occur after that type of thing would happen. Thoes conversations are ongoing. Our lines of communication remain open and we work together to try to meet the special needs as they occur so we’ll continue to do that.
Essentially, the vibe I got from the conversation was “Good luck, CCPS! You’re on your own (again).”
The Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and Energy Performance Contract are the first two line items in the prioritized list CCPS provided to the county executive and they must be funded. The county can decide which pocket they’d like to use to fund those line items, but they must be funded.
The only other small capital project funded in the proposed budget? The replacement of the tennis courts and basketball courts at Rising Sun High School–a project that is sorely needed but is 10th on the request.
That’s right. CCPS provided a prioritized list of projects with the replacement of a cooling tower as third on the list–only outranked by the BTOP and Energy Performance Contract–and Cecil County chose to disregard the recommendations from the tradespeople who inspect, maintain, and repair these facilities and instead make the political move to recommend improvements at Rising Sun High School.
Why would they do such a thing? I can only think that the county decided to put CCPS in the unenviable position of taking funding slated for athletic facilities at Rising Sun High School and using it, instead, for a critical infrastructure project at Perryville High School. You can’t just pull a cooling tower out of a warehouse and install it overnight. If that cooling tower failed before it could be replaced it would be completely disruptive to the students and staff at Perryville.
Once again, Cecil County pinned CCPS between a rock and hard place.
And, once again, CCPS rose to the occasion.
They announced at the most recent board of education meeting that the school system had received approval for a nearly $400,000 discount on the FY 2016 BTOP expense and was applying for a discount of nearly $450,000 on the FY 2017 expense. Additionally, there is a bill up for council approval on June 21 that would transfer $400,000 from BTOP to three capital projects:
Replacement of the cooling tower at Perryville High School
Installation of a new waterline at Cecil Manor Elementary School
Partial replacement of the galvanized plumbing at Bohemia Manor High School
Despite this bit of good news, there are still many projects that Cecil County will be forced to address at some point and there are still no plans for addressing them.
There’s still time to make a difference in the FY 2017 budget. Here’s how you can help:
Attend the budget hearing Thursday, May 26 at 7 PM at Elkton High School
Speak in support of education funding at an upcoming county council meeting. Here’s the meeting schedule.
Contact our county officials
To make it easier, just copy these email addresses and paste them into an email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
If you are partial to mailing actual letters, send them to this address:
200 Chesapeake Blvd.
Elkton, MD 21921
Cecil County Executive
Cecil County Council
In my last post I hypothesized that there were candidates running for Cecil County Board of Education seats for reasons other than a desire to advocate for the education of the children of Cecil County. Here’s a link in case you missed it
In that post I provided screenshots that supported my theory from the candidates’ Facebook pages and included links to the actual posts on Facebook to further substantiate the facts.
Those screenshots were just the beginning.
While candidate Ron Lobos may have scrubbed his online presence clean since my last post, I took the time to capture some of his posts for posterity before they disappeared. I’d like to share some of those posts with you so you can see how they measure up against the laws and policies that he would be swearing to uphold if elected. (Anyone noticing the irony that the candidate crying for transparency from the board of education is deleting any comments that question the assertions he makes on his Facebook page?)
State Education Laws
Each newly elected member of the Cecil County Board of Education takes an oath to uphold the laws of the state of Maryland.
From the Md. EDUCATION Code Ann. § 4-101 (2016):
(b) Promotion of schools. — Each county board shall seek in every way to promote the interests of the schools under its jurisdiction.
“Just wondering Frances, if the County fully funded the budget requests for the CCPS, County Roads, Sheriff’s Department, Public Works, Libraries, and Parks and recreation, etc. for the last 5 years, what do you think our tax rate would be in Cecil County? It would be wonderful if we had an unlimited amount of money and we could just spend as much as we dream of, but this is not a dream. It is reality and every department must be treated fairly in a common sense fashion. I do not wish for the CCPS to be underfunded but I absolutely seek transparency.” Here’s a link to the page where these comments originally appeared–they have since been deleted. How very transparent of him.
The law makes no mention of board members advocating for other departments in the county yet Mr. Lobos is more concerned about the tax rate and budgets of other departments than funding the budget requests of the school system. These types of concerns are better addressed by positions in county government like county council or even county executive, not board of education.
Let’s look at another state law board of education members are accountable to:
§ 4-108. Duties in general (2) Maintain throughout its county a reasonably uniform system of public schools that is designed to provide quality education and equal educational opportunity for all children;
In the same conversation from February 21, a commenter posts:
“Choose to go to private schools as I do not (sic) anyone else paying for MY responsibilities. Paying for school is just like buying food and clothing for my kids. If you cannot afford kids, maybe they should not have them. I do not ask the public to feeds (sic) or clothe my kids and will not ask them to pay for their education since I choose not to do it myself.”
Did Mr. Lobos post a comment defending the rights of all students to free public education? No, he or someone responding for the Ron Lobos for Cecil County School Board clicked the “Like” button on the comment instead.
County Educational Policies
In addition to state laws and policies, board of education members are also accountable to policies at the county level.
From the Cecil County Boardmanship Standards Policy (Policy BBB)
Standards for Intra-Board Member Relationships
Members of the Board are expected to abide by the following standards in their relationships with each other when conducting business.
Make decisions based upon a desire to serve the students in Cecil County in the best possible way;
Represent the entire County, rather than individual election areas, groups or patrons;
The About section of Ron Lobos for Cecil County School Board states: “The average taxpayer has no representation within the board (only direct benefactors).” Since Mr. Lobos doesn’t provide a definition of the “average taxpayer” and the minor students of CCPS aren’t taxpayers, it doesn’t appear that he’s interested in representing them at all.
We must make informed decisions about our school board
Two board of education seats will be filled in this year’s election and the field for one seat will be narrowed to two candidates in next week’s primary election. If those seats are filled by candidates whose intentions are something other than advocating for free public education for all students in Cecil County, they could turn the board from the cooperative group that operates in a professional manner into a dysfunctional sideshow that distracts from the business of educating children.
To the uninformed voter (I admit I was a member of that group until recently), casting a vote for a board of education member may be a no-brainer. Since the positions are considered non-partisan, no party affiliation is noted next to the candidate’s name on the ballot.
Now what do you do? You can’t throw darts in a polling place. Do you do a quick eeny, meeny, miny, moe chant? Flip a quarter? Every person that runs for board of education is doing it because they support public education, right?
Not so fast.
This year there are two candidates running as the “Conservative Education Slate” for seats on the Cecil County Board of Education. Kevin Emmerich is running in District 1 (Chesapeake City) and Ron Lobos is running in District 2 (Elkton).
Unfortunately for Cecil County, it appears these two candidates are attempting to start a hostile takeover of the board of education.
The Cecil County Campaign for Liberty shared the Cecil Whig article about Mr. Lobos’ decision to run for board of education. In the comments below the story, Mr. Lobos posts:
“I’m going to need a lot of help and support, mostly after I’m elected. That’s where the rubber meets the road. This will be a process to turn things around fiscally where we will need a majority of conservatives. Please support Kevin Emmerick for school board in the 1st district. He is also a conservative and I will need him just to second a motion when going to bat. Kevin is a good man.”
Long before he filed to run for the board of education seat, Rob Lobos was an outspoken critic of CCPS. He routinely criticizes the school system at county council meetings, budget hearings, and town hall meetings and frequently shares his thoughts about CCPS on Facebook. Here’s one example:
“And now we have the CCPS asking her for an additional $8M that will be paid annually to them for the foreseeable future. Once again, Moore will make excuses for the CCPS and reward them for mismanaging their money.”
Now, he’s asking the citizens of Cecil County to elect him to a seat on the board of education.
What do Kevin Emmerich and Rob Lobos really think of our schools?